If you want to take your sharing to a higher level, you can join or even create a cooperative school with other parents. Many communities have cooperative schools, which often look a lot like small private schools. But cooperative schools are different: In fact, they're the ultimate public schools, because they are owned by the people who use them—the parents of the students.
Generally, parents buy into ownership in a cooperative school by paying tuition. By definition, ownership turns over as children grow up and leave the school and new students and their parents join. In addition to the tuition, parents must contribute a certain amount of time, whether in the classroom, kitchen, playground, or office. Often, parents also agree to do some fundraising to bring additional money into the school.
Rather than sharing a whole school, you can join together with other families to provide small group tutoring. Perhaps all the kids could use a little help with math, study skills, or even preparation for the SAT or other standardized tests. Maybe you'd like for the kids to learn Spanish, take piano lessons, or get some woodworking instruction. No matter what your kids need help with, you can make it less expensive by hiring a tutor to work with all of the kids at the same time in one of your homes. You can use the same type of agreement provided in Solution 3, below.
By definition, a cooperative is democratically controlled by its members, but that control can be exercised in a number of ways. Many cooperative schools incorporate in order to create a governing structure that allows a large number of families to participate (and exists separately from its members, which is important with a constantly changing student body), shield the participating families from liability, and take advantage of favorable tax treatment.
Cooperative corporations must establish a board of directors made up of stakeholders in the cooperative. In the case of a cooperative school, the board is usually comprised of parents with kids in the school, and sometimes parents of former students. The board sets policy, does long-range planning, and supervises the school's director. The cooperative employs caregivers, teachers, and administrators who bring the necessary skills, training, and certifications, and ensure the school is in compliance with state educational and child care services requirements. Parents take shifts, either assisting the professionals or working in other ways that benefit the school.
A Co-Op Nursery School
The Sunset Co-op Nursery School in San Francisco is one of the longest-running co-op schools in the country—in operation since 1940! Most parents feel lucky to take part in the Sunset Co-op—it's one of the best deals on childcare around, plus it's a great place for parents and kids.
About 50 or 60 families take part in the co-op, and a parent from each family helps out at the school for one morning or afternoon each week. With the addition of three full-time childcare staff, there are around eight or nine adults present at any given time. Each parent brings a unique contribution to the school. One creative mom taught "circus classes" during her shifts at the nursery. The children loved it when she arrived with circus props to teach them juggling, tumbling, and hula-hooping. In addition to helping with care a few hours per week, parents also take part in preparing snacks for the children, doing maintenance chores, and fundraising for the school. The Co-op also provides almost daily parenting classes or discussion groups for parents.
The relationships that form at the Sunset Co-op last beyond the nursery school years—both parents and children have come away with lifelong friendships. For more information about the Sunset Co-op Nursery School, see www.sunsetcoop.org.
The parents' time at school is probably the most noticeable difference between cooperative schools and other private and public schools (where parent involvement may occur, but is almost always voluntary and not as frequent as is required by a cooperative). In most other respects, you wouldn't be able to tell a cooperative school from any other school. Depending on the parental involvement and other factors, the cost of a cooperative school can be similar to that of other private schools. However, some co-op schools manage to keep tuition rates low, primarily through fundraising and high levels of parental participation.
Cooperative schools are much more common at the preschool and elementary level than in the higher grades.
Child Care Co-Ops as a Benefit of Employment
Some employers, recognizing that lack of reliable child care is a common reason for employee absences, are stepping up to create child care options for employees. One such option is a child care cooperative, either on-site or near the workplace, for which the employer pays the setup costs and provides some level of continuing financial support, then leaves the ongoing ownership and operation to participating employees. As in any cooperative, the board of directors is made up of participating parents, possibly with the addition of an employer representative. In most ways, this type of cooperative is very much like any other child care co-op. Because it's underwritten by the employer, however, it may cost less than an independent co-op. And the employer's support makes it easier for employees to take the time they need to participate in the activities of the cooperative.
Want more information on cooperative schools? Check out the website of Parent Cooperative Preschools International, at www.preschools.coop. The National Cooperative Business Association has information about cooperatives generally, and a page about child care and preschools, at www.ncba.coop.